Yuletide horror Better Watch Out is out in cinemas this weekend. It’s an impressive and surprisingly vicious piece of work with some stand-outs performances (not least from young co-lead Levi Miller), plus a unique mid-point twist that could easily see it becoming a perennial alternative Christmas favourite (read our review from this year’s Grimmfest).

We recently chatted to director Chris Peckover about how he manged to make a festive feel-bad film, his ideas on how to successfully strike the balance with horror comedies and the dark flipside to the John Hughes universe.

HeyUGuys: How did this film come together?

Chris Peckover: My producers brought me the script by Zack Kahn and asked me if I’d be interested. I ended up doing some rewrites and I like to think of my contribution as tonal, because Zack’s version was very, very dark and probably a lot more effed up than the final film ended up being. I added some fun and banter to it. But it still goes into some taboo places and I’ve been pretty shocked that more people haven’t been complaining about the subject matter. Hopefully that’s because we treated it right.

I suppose you still wanted it to chime with a broader audience?

The movie’s definitely having the conversation about how men treat women and to me it was really important that women watch it and feel empowered and respected, even though that isn’t the case for the female character in the film. It was important that [the lead character] Ashley never beg or never cry and was always either toe-to-toe with the villain or one step ahead.

Levi Miller gives an astounding performance. Was he 14 at the time of filming?

He had just turned 13. Between when I’d cast him six months prior to the shoot and when he arrived on set, he’d grown three inches. By the time we were doing ADR he’s grown even taller and his voice he had stopped cracking so we had to try and re-crack it. But I was so glad we caught him at that age, because his voice cracking adds such a layer to the thing.

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Was it tricky to coax that kind of performance from him? It asks a lot for that age. He goes to some places that normal 13 year-olds would never venture.

I had to be there to support him. I feel like we lucked out. He might be one of the best people in his age group, acting-wise. He’s got incredible range and he’s so watchable. There was a lot of discussion about how far to go, but the funny thing is, when I was that age, I was constantly dreaming about all kinds of devious craziness. Levi had a blast shooting the film because it was like a male preteen’s daydream – waving guns around while arguing about Adventure Time characters. The kind of things that 13 year-olds gloat about but don’t actually do. They were allowed to say whatever they wanted in front of all the adults on stage. Can you imagine a more fun thing to do at that age?

Without getting into much detail for the sake of those who have yet to see the film, there’s a wonderful rug pull moment around the midpoint. Was that tricky to pull off, tonally?

I feel the tone between horror and comedy is very difficult to pull off, but when it’s done right, you get the likes of Evil Dead, Gremlins and American Psycho, which are some of my favourite films.

The way to pull it off is to not lean into either the horror or comedy, but to actually lean into the drama of it. When the audience is invested and excited it’s easier to pull off horror-comedy. If you’re trying to just get laughs or trying to just get scares, it upsets the balance.

The film also satirises the kind of saccharine moments you see in family Christmas movies. Was that a conscious move on your behalf?

When I look back on my favourite John Hughes movies, certainly including Home Alone, I sometimes wonder how the characters in them get away with this being so accessible and universally loved.

Films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – these aren’t necessarily good people. With Better Watch Out it was fun to take the cute notion of a kid in love with his babysitter and actually look at the personality type that takes to be that cute 12 year-old. I feel like you can take so many John Hughes characters and if you did a deep read of them there would be something more going on there that just a charming and awesome person.

Do you have anything in the pipeline at the moment, Chris?

Nothing’s been announced yet so I have to be vague, but I have paired up with some immense producers for what will be my first foray into supernatural horror. I’ve done two films about backyard villains – real things that exist in everybody’s neighbourhood, so I’m excited to push the boundaries of reality in the next one. As you will have noticed, I like twist on things. If Better watch Out was a twist on home invasion, the next one will be my twist on the possession story.